50-storey skyscraper: The seven-tower project pitched for Melbourne’s suburbs

Councillors have slammed the state government’s move to seize planning control of a massive seven-tower proposed development that would transform central Box Hill’s already-bulging skyline.

Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny is preparing to amend Whitehorse Council’s planning scheme to allow Vicinity Centres to develop its 18,500-square-metre masterplan, which includes seven residential and commercial towers, the tallest of which would be 50 storeys.

Long-term Box Hill resident Kevin Earl is concerned about Whitehorse Council losing planning controls.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Four of the towers would be higher than Box Hill’s current tallest building, the 36-storey Sky One apartment block.

Vicinity Centres bypassed the local council to request that the former planning minister consider its masterplan in December 2020. This was done through the Andrews government’s Development Facilitation Program, which was created during the pandemic to revitalise the economy by speeding up approvals for major projects and skipping usual council processes.

Whitehorse councillors endorsed a biting submission on Tuesday night that describes the planned development as “fatally flawed”, with inappropriate building heights and inadequate consultation, after a four-week consultation period was opened for the draft amendment.

Vicinity Centres’ proposal involves redeveloping Box Hill Central shopping centre on the bustling Whitehorse Road with new apartments, shops, commercial offices and a Spanish steps-inspired amphitheatre for events.

Council’s submission says it is not opposed to development – it approved planning permits for two of Vicinity’s seven proposed buildings last May after a heated debate – but believes this masterplan should not proceed any further due to concerns over height, open space, wind tunnelling, overshadowing and transport impacts.

“It will result in a public realm that will be seriously compromised,” the submission says.

Councillors also supported a motion, 10 votes to one, to write to Kilkenny to highlight the council’s concerns, request a formal meeting and express that it has the capacity to effectively steer the amendment itself as the area’s planning authority.

Deputy Mayor Prue Cutts told the council chambers it was disappointing that council had been sidelined on such a city-changing development.

“This is very, very worrying, that a big masterplan like this with five massive buildings can be just taken out of council’s hands,” Cutts said.

“The [amendment] does not demonstrate a sound, strategic or coordinated planning approach.”

Councillor Blair Barker said: “We’re elected to be the responsible authority. We have an understanding of the issues that Vicinity and the state government don’t.”

Box Hill’s evolving skyline seen from Whitehorse Road.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Box Hill, which is now peppered with CBD-like high-rises, is set to undergo another enormous overhaul with the construction of its Suburban Rail Loop station, which will be just east of the Vicinity site.

The Andrews government’s Suburban Rail Loop Authority will have planning powers over large swaths of Melbourne – about a 1.6-kilometre radius around each new station. A spokesman said it would be a planning authority alongside councils.

Councillor Amanda McNeill said: “We have experienced the state government creating their own planning authorities to override council and the community.”

An early artist’s impression of one of the skyscrapers planned by Vicinity Centres. This one was approved by the council in May 2022.

“This [masterplan] takes it to a whole new level. The minister has intervened when council has the capacity and capability to effectively undertake the amendment.”

The Development Facilitation Program has led to the accelerated approval of 45 projects since April 2020, with the aim of supporting Victoria’s COVID-19 recovery.

However, construction did not stop during the pandemic and the sector has been booming despite rising material costs and labour shortages. A CommSec report published in January last year found that construction work was stronger in Victoria than any other state, at 21.9 per cent above its decade average.

Professor Michael Buxton, of RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, criticised the state government for removing planning decisions on major projects from councils by creating new systems such as the Development Facilitation Program and the Suburban Rail Loop Authority’s planning arm.

“They’re making a mockery of proper planning process and they’re holding communities and councils in contempt,” Buxton said. “In a democratic society this is a massive worry.”

Asked if it was appropriate for his government to take over council planning powers, Premier Daniel Andrews said many councillors wanted greater support.

“At a time of real pressure in our housing market, we need to get more houses built,” Andrews said. “You’ve got to make sure that processes are rigorous and people aren’t hurt, and we think we strike that balance.”

Opposition planning spokesman David Hodgett said communities should remain front and centre of local planning decisions.

“Cutting local communities and councils out of the planning process will only lead to worse outcomes and risks placing further pressure on often struggling local school, health and road infrastructure.”

Kilkenny did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Long-term Box Hill resident Kevin Earl is concerned about Whitehorse Council losing planning controls.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Whitehorse Ratepayers and Residents Association member Kevin Earl, who has lived in Box Hill for 68 years, said he was worried about the area’s overdevelopment and felt it was wrong for the state government to usurp the local council on planning matters.

“The state government is making decisions for Victoria or Melbourne whereas the City of Whitehorse is making decisions for the municipality, and the councillors are people who live in the area,” Earl said. “We vote for them. They have a much better understanding of local issues.”

Truman Dare, Vicinity Centres’ general manager for mixed use development, said the company wanted to unlock central Box Hill’s potential.

“Our vision is to revitalise the heart of Box Hill’s CBD and bring to life a bustling new town square surrounded by a contemporary mix of residential, commercial, retail and lifestyle destinations,” Dare said.

In a statement, the company said its buildings would be designed to minimise wind and shadowing, and it continued to work closely with the council, community and state government.

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